Alcon Entertainment’s first movie since The Blind Side proves to be just as schmaltzy yet oddly inspirational as its predecessor. A word of fair warning though — the past day or so has seen me watch both Dolphin Tale and have my wisdom teeth pulled out of my head. While I truly wish that I could hyperbolically rant that watching the so-called true story of a damn dolphin, which fights its way back from near certain death with the help of a lost young boy, was the more excruciating experience, this would be a rather disingenuous path to take on my behalf. Of course, my attitude could partially be attributed to the painkillers speaking through my fingertips at this point. After all, hydrocodone is some pretty good shit.
Dolphin Tale is based on the true story of Winter (played by the real-life Winter) the dolphin, who loses her tail in 2005 after being caught in a crab trap and eventually learns to swim again with the help of a prosthetic tail — a custom-fitted silicon gel sleeve painstakingly crafted by Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman). Winter is initially discovered and freed by 11-year-old Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) while on his way to summer school one day. Sawyer’s in the midst of his own difficult life circumstances and having trouble coping with loneliness due to his father’s abandonment five years ago; his cousin Kyle’s (Austin Stowell) recent army deployment; and the fact that his mother, Lorraine (Ashley Judd, who is always stuck playing thankless mother roles these days), works long hours at a low-paying job and is seldom at home. Needless to say, it is love at first sight for the boy and the dolphin.
Winter is initially taken in by Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick, Jr.) at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium but his tail must be amputated, which means that he would have virtually no chance of surviving in the wild. Soon, thanks in part to the lure of Winter, who responds not to the dulcet tones of Dr. Clay’s tenor sax (yes, really) but to the boy who rescued him, Sawyer starts skipping class to hang at the aquarium. There, Sawyer also bonds with Clay’s motherless daughter, Hazel (a plucky Cozi Zuehlsdorff), and her grandfather, Reed (Kris Kristofferson). The warmth and wisdom from three generations of this family also have a great effect on Sawyer. I think you can see where all of this is going, but obviously you haven’t anticipated (but won’t be entirely surprised by) the hefty subplots involving a debilitating human injury, a devastating hurricane, and the heart-wrenching aftermaths of both in the midst of all of the life-changing interaction. The endings to these dilemmas are predictable, but the filmmakers manage enough subtlety that it doesn’t much matter. Essentially, this film is about good people helping others an animal who affects and inspires them all along the way, which makes Dolphin Tale quite similar to The Blind Side in more ways than one without transforming into too manipulative a story.
Now, all of this sounds pretty awful unless you’re the parent of a young child in love with marine animals. Truly, it is quite possible that any adult needs to be on painkillers to fully appreciate the brave struggle of an animal and the impact it has upon her adoptive human family. Also quite impressive are the long trials and eventual success of the surly Dr. Cameron to come up with a successful tail replacement for Winter, and it’s a bonus to learn that his methods in developing this prosthetic innovation have since been implemented in human medicine as well. As always, Freeman is excellent in this role but does overshadow the rest of the cast with the exception of young Cozi Zuehlsdorff, who may give the likes of Chloe Moretz a run for their money in a few years. Overall, the cast is serviceable enough, and even the schlocky Connick can’t ruin this experience for young audience members — most children under the age of twelve years should be enraptured by the journey of Winter the dolphin, who still wears that now infamous prosthetic tail.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at Celebitchy.